Monday, September 14, 2015

The Morning After: Cowboys 27, Giants 26 (1-0)

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One of the most convincing statistical trends in the entire National Football League was struck down last night when Tony Romo found Jason Witten on the goal-line with :07 left in the game.   The statistic has a nearly insurmountable 139-6 record in the last 3 years.  That 96% win percentage is difficult to defeat, but the Cowboys actually pulled it off and got their season to a 1-0 mark with all of the drama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
The nearly unbeatable statistic in question was turnover differential where the team was -3 in this very important metric.  Last night, the Cowboys were absolutely awful at both protecting the ball and taking the ball.  The offense was beyond generous last night, something they avoided for the most part in 2014, giving the Giants the ball 3 different times and 17 quick and easy points.  Meanwhile, the defense, the same Marinelli group that took the ball away 17 times after Thanksgiving in 2014 was not able to take the ball away a single time from Eli Manning and his group.  Do you know the last time the Cowboys won a game without taking the ball away a single time?  If you said October of 2009 in Kansas City, give yourself a prize.  The franchise broke a record of 18 consecutive losses when they did not have a single takeaway. 
So, the fact that the team won a game in which they were a "-3" in the turnover game to start the season is more than fortunate.  It is a remarkable abnormality that tells us the Cowboys had to be pretty solid in a lot of departments on Sunday night to overcome that head start they gave the Giants.  But, it is always nice to learn a lesson while also claiming a division victory to start your season.  In many ways, the clumsiness of the execution mirrored the opener last season against San Francisco.  The difference might have been the execution of the opponent where last year the 49ers took advantage of the gifts and never let the game get close, unlike the Giants last night who seemed unable to make the proper decisions at the crucial moments to put the Cowboys to the sword. 
The most crucial decision comes back to the 4-minute drill that the Giants were running after the Cowboys cut the margin to 23-20 with 5:08 left.  In football terms, the 4-minute drill is the act of running out the clock while holding a lead by simply moving the chains and never letting the opponent touch the ball again â“ or at least making sure there is almost no time left.  The Giants were pulling this off with great precision for most of that drive with Rashad Jennings breaking off a few big runs, a ridiculous personal foul penalty on Jeremy Mincey, and Odell Beckham, Jr, making two 3rd down catches against a frustrated secondary, the 2nd of which appeared to be the final dagger on a 3rd and 14 from the 20 yard line where he squeezed between the corner and safety for 16 yards down to the 4.  Now, with 2:00 left, and a 1st and goal at the 4, the Giants had the chance to make Dallas use its last 2 timeouts and sure there was less than a minute left by the time they kicked their field goal to go up 6, or score a touchdown and end the game right there.
Instead, they opted for the 3rd option, which is grant the Cowboys a free timeout by throwing on 3rd and goal from the 1 out of the back of the end zone.  Anything was better than that.  Take a sack.  Take a knee.  Run the Quarterback sneak.  Do anything, Eli Manning, but stop the clock for your opponent.  If I were the Giants, I would have run the ball on 3rd and goal and then thought seriously about running it again on 4th.  If the Cowboys can stop 2 consecutive runs from 36 inches away, they now have less than 60 seconds to drive from inside their own 1-yard line.  Instead, for reasons that are difficult to uncover beyond Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning both admitting they did the wrong thing in postgame (including Eli, the 12-year veteran starter seeming to admit his grasp of the clock procedures in the NFL was less than tight), the Cowboys were granted a fantastic stay of execution by the Giants and allowed 1:29 to drive the ball down the field and attempt to rescue a victory from the jaws of defeat.
That, in and of itself, was no easy task because the talisman of the receiving corps, Dez Bryant, was already back in the locker-room with a broken bone in his foot that will take him out through September and most of October.  Tony Romo would have to engineer his 24th career 4th Quarter comeback without his leading receiver and mismatch option and look to many of the other tools in his toolbox. 
Enter North Texas' Lance Dunbar.  Dunbar has been a player the Cowboys have been spending much of the last few years swearing up and down they had a role for him planned, but never actually showing that in his first 3 years in the league (with the exception being the win in Seattle in 2014).  You would hear them compare him to Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles or another hybrid weapon that isn't really a running back but he also isn't really a wide receiver.  What is he?  A weapon that can cause a defense all sorts of stress because defending him is quite difficult, especially if he is lined up with other matchup problems to begin with.  What team has enough defensive backs to stick with Bryant (when available), Witten, Williams, Beasely, and Dunbar?  Very few. 
Romo and Dunbar hooked up 8 times last night, which was easily his career high for targets that Lance had in his first 37 NFL games.  On that final drive, with just 2 snaps and throws that hardly traveled back to the line of scrimmage, the Cowboys moved the ball from their own 28 to the Giants 32 yard line as Dunbar hit the nitro and grabbed 40 quick yards and the clock was just barely past 1:00 left.  From there, Romo hit the guy he has hit most in his career, Witten to the 19.  An incompletion to Beasley stopped the clock at :17 left (we do wonder what would have happened if Beasley would have caught that will diving in the middle of the field.  The frantic race to spike the ball and stop the clock would have been tense), and then a quick out to Williams got the ball out at :13.   The Giants were trying to play coverage, because blitzing in the drive before was dissected by Romo easily, and you could clearly see the threat of Lance Dunbar was attracting plenty of bodies on the right side, and Beasley doing the same underneath on the left.  Witten was passed off in the zone to backup middle Linebacker Uani' Unga, but Unga allowed Witten to get underneath leverage with that familiar post-up that he has performed dozens of times.  Witten against a player who had never played in the NFL before last night?  I am pretty sure that Tony Romo knew where he was going all along. 
The touchdown and the now nervy extra point put the Cowboys up 27-26 with :07 left which might be near the very top of the list of great finishes in the careers of Romo and Witten.  Down 10 with less than 6 minutes to go, the offense put together 2 touchdown drives and overcame all sorts of difficulties earlier in the evening to get the Cowboys their latest come from behind TD pass in franchise history.  Nobody had ever won a game in that fashion in the many years of Cowboys' football, but now Romo has another dramatic accomplishment on his ledger.
The night came with considerable cost as significant injuries to Dez Bryant and Randy Gregory occurred and in both cases look like they will take those players out for many weeks.  Bryant, in particular, is on the list of players many of us consider imperative for the Cowboys to remain on track for a chance to finish amongst the heavyweights in the NFC, but this is all part of the NFL bargain.  Once the season begins, teams understand that the health of their players is just as vital as the execution of their game-plans, but it is also a test of both depth and character to survive and heed the "next man up" mantra.
There is never a good time to be without Bryant, but having just gone most of the offseason program without him, the offense should be familiar with the concept.  The hope has to be that this isn't a season where he is never quite right.  The smart move is to keep him out as long as it takes to get him right, rather than him trying to fight his way back to the field too early and only making things worse. 
Meanwhile, that long promised improved pass rush loses Gregory at a time where Greg Hardy is already unavailable will require the Cowboys to navigate through their first several games with essentially the same pass rush that ended 2014 together.  After watching Gregory flash so much at camp and even last night, it hurts to lose him as well, but after seeing the replay, the idea that he likely will return this season should be seen as fortunate. 
Otherwise, there is plenty of stress about the running game and the play-calling balance â“ topics we will really dig into tomorrow as we dissect the offense more in depth.  But, overall, I think the Cowboys did many good things on Sunday night and the offense appeared to be pretty solid for large parts of the game.  Did they pass too much?  Sure.  I don't prefer Romo to have to throw for 350 yards, but that was the game.  Stylistically, I think the game developed in a way that required Romo to throw them back into it.  But, when the game was developing, the Cowboys were running the ball and running it pretty well.  You cannot anticipate 3 giveaways like that, but once they happen, you have to play the game in front of you â“ and I thought they did it pretty well.
The defense did a decent job of forcing field goals and keeping Beckham from destroying them.  But, they did not get to Manning enough and they did not take the ball away.  This is a work in progress, but I thought both sides of the ball showed signs of being ok â“ but it was all sabotaged by that "-3" that suggests you lose 96 times out of every 100.
But, they didn't.  They got away with defying the odds and therefore advance at 1-0 to a very difficult matchup in Philadelphia without all of their preferred troops to choose from, including the same Dez Bryant who eviscerated the Eagles when the Cowboys went in there in December of last year. 
Surely, any delusions of 2015 being an easy ride right back into January has been quickly quieted down with the reality of the NFL â“ nothing is easy.  Adversity goes with football like peanut butter and jelly and the Cowboys were able to taste the pain last night.  But, they did so in a victorious fashion and perhaps dodged the bullet of losing Bryant or Gregory for the duration (as they suffered with Scandrick back in August).
Regardless, the ship has left the port and now sets sail for a season with many unanticipated twists and turns.  There is a surprise around every corner, but this is a very talented team that is capable of handling itself from week to week and even grabbing a win on a night where a lot of things went wrong.


Now, there is plenty to fix in another big week of practice for Jason Garrett and his team.

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